What is socially engaged art?

After researching the landscape of socially engaged art, Helicon Collaborative offered this working definition: “artistic or creative practice that aims to improve conditions in a particular community or in the world at large.” They found this kind of art assumes artists have agency and responsibility to affect social change, and often entails collaborating closely with community members. As such it requires forms and materials that go beyond those used in studio art.

There is also the argument that socially engaged art may not always address political or economic issues– certain expressions of cultural identity are political acts unto themselves. To peel back the layers of socially engaged art, read the full report or explore the topics below.

methods + strategies

Socially engaged art is an umbrella term for many different forms of artistic practice. Some examples include artistic activism, community based art, creative placemaking, cultural organizing, participatory art, social practice, and social sculpture. But this list is not exhaustive…and that can be exhausting.

While many artists do not worry about such labels at all, for anyone who needs a way to make sense of so many complex creative practices called by many different names, the #artmakingchange team offers a loose framework below. Keep in mind the categories below are based on a project’s primary intention and methods, are not mutually exclusive, and more than one may apply to a single work.

cry you one
Featured Project: Cry You One


Activist methods are as salient as conventional aesthetics. Projects seek tangible change in social, political, or economic conditions.

Possible examples include legislative art and cultural organizing.

Featured Project: Question Bridge


Projects focus on raising awareness about an issue or changing the way it’s understood. Artists may use commercial or mass culture platforms.

Pop justice is one example.

Project Row Houses
Featured Project: Project Row Houses


Work is motivated by affecting the conditions of a particular geography. Civic goals like health, safety, or economic growth may be central, along with cross-sector partnerships.

Creative placemaking and civic practice could be described this way.


Projects may pivot on broad participation from community members, and/or reflect the cultural expression and identities of people excluded from the mainstream.

Examples include community-based art, participatory art, and work generated in specific cultural traditions.

roles + relationships

Socially engaged artists do not act alone. Period. Even if a project is conceived and primarily executed by an artist, s/he is always working in a larger context and environment. Mapping the Landscape reminds us that this brand of artmaking takes place in a dynamic ecosystem of interrelated roles, which is expressed below.

roles and relationships : community partners, educators, stakeholders, participants, artist

essential elements

Helicon heard repeatedly from artists and field leaders that there are three elements at the foundation of every socially engaged art project. All three must be considered in the development and support of socially engaged work.

essential elements : intentions, skills, and ethics


A tiny sculpture made by hand can be easily distinguished from a huge object assembled using a crane. A song performed by its original author may have different significance than the same song covered by another artist. We understand intuitively how these kinds of variations can impact the meaning of studio-based art, but what about work that is socially engaged? Mapping the Landscape describes nine features of socially engaged art that can influence a project’s effectiveness and ultimate outcomes.









artist’s role or function


origin of artist


origination of the work


definition of the work


direction of “influence”